A young Aboriginal man wearing an athletics hoodie and looking away from the camera

Twelve Canoes

Twelve Canoes website relaunched

Twelve Canoes

The NFSA has recently relaunched the Twelve Canoes website in collaboration with the site's creators and owners.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.

'Everything is part of everything...'

The Twelve Canoes website showcases 12 short, linked audiovisual pieces, plus extras, that together paint a compelling portrait of the history, culture and place of the Yolngu people. The homeland of the Yolngu people is the Arafura Swamp of north-central Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Watch a trailer for Twelve Canoes:

Twelve Canoes website, trailer.

More Than Ten Canoes

In 2003, filmmaker Rolf de Heer was collaborating with the Indigenous Yolngu people of Ramingining to devise a storyline for the film Ten Canoes. Individual Yolngu contributors brought in a lot of material for discussion, keen to have their ideas incorporated and for the film to reflect the entirety of their lives, culture and history. Everyone soon recognised that no film could achieve all that, and the idea of a website was born.

The contributors established a Ramingining consultative committee – consisting of Peter Minygululu, Richard Birrinbirrin, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djigirr and Bobby Bunungurr, all artists in their own right. The contributors continued to gather material, including licensing and commissioning paintings through Belinda Scott at Ramingining's Bula'bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation. As they compiled more video, audio and stills, the focus of the website began to evolve.

Twelve tone poems

The committee decided on 12 key subjects. Each was to deal with a particular key aspect of Yolngu culture, place or history, and each of these sections on the website would be headlined by an audiovisual 'tone poem'.

The poems are about five minutes long and contain strong, sometimes ethereal, imagery. They are generally accompanied by words from different Ramingining storytellers.

Each tone poem is an independent module incorporating works of art, video material, stills, music and sound:

Creation tells of when the people of the area came into being. As there are many creation stories, this is the story of Dog Dreaming and his travels from the Swamp to the sea.

Our Ancestors describes the way the Yolngu used to live, in the old times, before the arrival of any visitors from the outside world, and how this society used to operate.

The Macassans, from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, were the first who came from another place. Long before the coming of the white man, the Macassans traded cloth, metal, tobacco and sea-faring skills with the Yolngu.

First White Men tells of the various wars, ultimately won at great cost, fought by the Yolngu to protect their lands and people from encroachment by the white man, including the Americans who tried ranching the land.

ThomsonTime speaks of Dr Donald Thomson, the anthropologist who came to solve the turmoil in Arnhem Land in the 1930's. Thomson learnt language, lived with, studied and befriended the people and was a great advocate for them to government.

The Swamp describes the World Heritage-listed Arafura wetlands just south of Ramingining. The Swamp and its people have a historical, cultural, economic and spiritual relationship which is now threatened by a number of factors.

Flora and Fauna is about the diversity of plant and animal life of the Arafura wetlands and surrounding areas, and their continuing but fragile existence in a changing world.

Seasons is about how the blooming of a flower can tell you that sharks are being born in the sea; it is about the interactive description of the changing life cycles that punctuate the weather patterns of the Yolngu year.

Kinship highlights the complexity and historical importance of family structure and ancestral relationships. The expression of kinship today has evolved, but its importance and complexity remain.

Ceremony is about the rites and rituals that describe aspects of the Yolngu inner life, the ceremonies that bind the community together and keep the people and their traditions strong.

Language tells the story of how the different languages were given to the clans of people of the region and describes the relationship of the clan groups and the people as a whole to their languages.

Nowadays captures a slice of the contemporary way of life for the Yolngu in the township of Ramingining.

View images from the Twelve Canoes website in the gallery below:

About Ramingining

Ramingining is an isolated town about 500 kilometres east of Darwin. It supports a population of about 1,500 people, mainly Indigenous, in the township and surrounding districts. Set up by the government in 1972 to bring together the different peoples of the region, Ramingining is consequently a mixed settlement of primarily Yolngu people. Many are close to or on their traditional tribal lands; others are some distance removed from them.

Close to Ramingining is the Arafura Swamp, a World Heritage-listed tract of freshwater wetlands that extends to 130,000 hectares during the wet season. The Swamp is central to the lives of most of the people: historically, culturally and spiritually.

The community is one of contrasts. Most people know 6 or 7 languages, but English is spoken only out of necessity, and often in rudimentary fashion. The people still practise hunting, fishing and gathering, in both traditional and non-traditional ways, but at the same time
turn to the internet to do their banking.

Conventional work is scarce but an increasing engagement with the arts and craft helps keep some of the traditions alive.

Educational Resources

Explore the Twelve Canoes website and download the Twelve Canoes Study Guide for teachers and students.

You can discover more educational resources like this under Learning on our website, including Mabo: The Native Title Revolution, the Carriberrie 360° online experience celebrating Indigenous song and dance, and Still Our Country – a further online installation about Yolngu people and culture.


Main image from the Twelve Canoes website: photography by CJ Taylor